Cat feces: a potential public health problem?

While it may seem silly, cat poop has the potential to be a public health problem, according to Dr. E. Fuller Torrey (of the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland) and Dr. Robert H. Yolken (from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine). In an interview with CNN, the doctors weigh in on the issue of cat feces and Toxoplasma gondii, which is a parasitic microorganism commonly found in the feces (“Is cat poop dangerous?”, 2013).

T. gondii causes a condition called toxoplasmosis, usually associated with foodborne illnesses, which affects about 60 million people in the U.S. However, most do not show symptoms because the immune system is able to fight off the infection, but for immunocompromised people and pregnant women, the symptoms of a serious infection include muscle aches and pains, flu-like symptoms, reduced or blurred vision, and central nervous system symptoms such as seizures, altered mental status, and headaches. Interestingly, some studies have also suggested a relationship between schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and rheumatoid arthritis and having T. gondii antibodites.

A cat with T. gondii is able to excrete about 100 million microorganisms a day, and with about 82 million domestic cats and between 25 and 60 million un-owned cats in the U.S., the risk of infection may be greater than expected. Additionally, about 1.2 million tons of cat feces are excreted into the environment each year.

Dr. Torrey and Dr. Yolken do point out that indoor cats do not usually carry the infective form of the disease, and give the following tips to avoid Toxoplasmosis:

  • Dispose of cat litter properly, do not dispose it in the toilet because it can enter the environment and waterways
  • Cover children’s sandboxes and play areas when they are not being used, since cats will use areas with soil or sand as toilets (furthermore, high concentrations of T. gondii have been found in these types of areas)
  • Gardeners should always use gloves, as one study showed that as many as 100 oocysts (immature forms of the microorganism) can be found in the fingernails of gardeners who do not wear gloves
  • Thoroughly wash vegetables from a garden
  • Have pregnant women avoid tending to a cat or in environments where cats can relieve themselves

 

References

Is cat poop dangerous?. (2013, July 9).CNN. Retrieved July 29, 2013, from http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/09/health/expertqa-cat-poop-risks/index.html

Longo, D. L., Kasper, D., Jameson, J., Fauci, A., Hauser, S., & Loscalzo, J. (2012). Toxoplasma Infections. Harrison’s principles of internal medicine (18 ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Toxoplasmosis Frequently Asked Questions. (2013). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved July 29, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/toxoplasmosis/gen_info/faqs.html

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4 thoughts on “Cat feces: a potential public health problem?

  1. This condition seems a little scary considering it affects 60 million Americans each year. I have two cats at my apartment, but they never go outside. However, I do wonder if there is any kind of test that can be done on the cats to check for this condition. My cats are not allowed outside at all, but they both came from the animal shelter as adult cats. Their pasts are relatively unknown to me and the shelter staff members, so they could have been living outside and have this condition.

    My sister was recently pregnant and was told very directly not to have direct contact with the cat litter or the garden soil. She did not mind this direction from the doctor, but her husband was probably not too pleased with the extra housework! Thanks for the great post!

  2. Eww! That is crazy that cat poop affects so many people! I had no idea the food we eat could be contaminated by cat feces. It gives me a hold new appreciation for washing my fruits and veggies!!! I also wonder how dangerous it is for pregnant women to be living in a house with a cat (and cat feces)???

    About a year ago, I adopted a dog and she loves to eat cat feces! In the area we used to live in Florida, there were tons of stray cats and my dog would love to dig threw the sand/dirt to eat it. I had no idea it could be so dangerous due to the parasitic microorganism. I just did a little research and found there are symptoms you can watch for if a dog consumes cat poop. The symptoms include loss of appetite, fever and depression, seizures, paralysis, stiff muscles, pneumonia, heart arrythmia and digestive problems!!! So gross and so dangerous!

  3. Mind….Blown! I am a cat enthusiast and actually own two cats. I never fully understood this issue to begin with, and never took the time to look into it. I really never knew it was this prevalent of an issue.

    Thanks for sharing it for all of us! I guess I have been defending against this issue since we do not allow are cats to go outside. Also we have no mice, birds and other small mammals running around our house , which commonly spread infection. I think I am going to spend more time washing my hands after yard work, and a little more time washing my veggies!

  4. Before your post, I knew that pregnant women should not change cat litter because the cat fetus could harm the unborn child. I did not understand the full extent to this situation. I have no idea that this could be a potential public health issue or that so many people have issues with Toxoplasma gondii.

    After this post, I am going to start wearing gloves every time I garden. I will also make sure I wash all my fruits and vegetables. Thanks for such a great post!

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